Reporting for duty

Robin Cook

The Independent

31 July 2004

Long before John Kerry strode on to the Democrat Convention platform the mood of the delegates was clear: No reservation was going to get in the way of their determination to get their candidate elected.

The presidential contender rose to the occasion with a sound, well-crafted tour of the horizon. He was rational, lucid. Some may snipe at the lack of razzamatazz but this was in itself reassuring; a welcome contrast to so many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Calling the November contest "the most important election of our lifetime", he spoke compellingly of the need for a president who could end America's isolationism and win back the respect of the world. Here was a man of integrity setting out his stall to run the world's superpower with a speech heavy on national security but also speaking of the need for social justice in a divided land.

In truth, though, he cannot claim the credit for the formidable sense of common purpose at the convention. The person who has forged unity in the Democratic Party is George Bush. American politics have been polarised by Bush, so reactionary a president that, by comparison, Margaret Thatcher appears a wet liberal.

Even she would never dare target tax cuts as blatantly as Bush has done on those already multimillionaires. The largesse is doubly resented because it coincides with an era in which income growth for ordinary Americans has stalled.

Under George Bush, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as "have-nots'' has soared; more than a quarter of whites and almost half of blacks.

The deep political and social divisions of contemporary America do not offer much of a future for Third Way politics, which now seem passé. Triangulation is not a strategy for today's Democrats, who do not see Bush as having scored any successes that they want to steal.

John Edwards caught the mood of the convention when he promised that they would improve Medicare, widen childcare and broaden access to college education, and fund these steps by increasing tax on the top 2 per cent. It remains to be seen whether New Labour, which has been so keen to Americanise its policy, will dare copy this prescription for social justice.

Equally popular with the convention were pledges to siphon the funds pouring into Iraq back into the welfare of America. Every time a speaker asked from the platform why America could afford to build a free health service in Iraq but could not find the funds to finance medical care for its own poor, they were answered by a long and thunderous applause.

Which brings us to the principle motivation of the delegates to defeat Bush - their conviction that he cheated America over the reasons for war. As Bill Clinton put it, "you cannot lead the world if you mislead America." The only debate on Iraq within the caucuses and around the fringe meetings was how soon US troops could be extricated with dignity.

I heard no one on either inside the convention hall or at the meetings around Boston willing to defend the president's decision to send in the troops in the first place. Nor are Democrat activists indulging a concern for foreign policy that the public does not share.

In each of the presidential elections of the past decade only 2 or 3 per cent of the electorate has picked foreign policy as the most important issue. This time, it is a staggering 40 per cent of those asked.

There is a pleasing justice to the predicament of the Bush administration. After falsely presenting the invasion as a response to 11 September, the White House now finds its success in fighting terrorism is in danger of being judged by its failure in Iraq and its isolation around the world. The verdict that the Democrats hope the nation will return is that America would be safer at home if it had maintained its alliance abroad and if it had a president who understands that building alliances is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

The message that there is safety in numbers was repeatedly proclaimed in the convention logo "Strong at Home. Respected Abroad." It is a good theme to distinguish the Democrats from neo-conservatives who run the Bush administration and who have turned unilateralism into a principle. It also highlights the strength of John Kerry, who has genuine qualifications as an internationalist.

He is the son of a diplomat who was raised through much of his childhood in Europe and who from the date of his election to the Senate has served on the Foreign Relations Committee. He has already advertised his commitment to multilateralism by pledging that he will address the UN within 100 days of becoming president.

But the Atlantic has grown wider under Bush and will be more challenging to bridge. It was notable that when they talked about rebuilding alliances both members of the Kerry-Edwards ticket stressed the objectives of America, such as persuading Nato to deploy in Iraq. It was left to party elders such as Bill Clinton to spell out that multilateralism would also present demands on America, such as signing up to a commitment to halt global warming.

Downing Street will have its own reservations about a victory for John Kerry. He has already stated that a top foreign priority will be restoring relations with France and Germany. Having damaged his own relations with both countries in order to support Bush, Tony Blair is in no position to offer to help a President Kerry in that project. Nor will John Kerry need any assistance.

He is unusual not just in Washington but also at Westminster in that he can address President Jacques Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in their own languages. Teresa Heinz Kerry was a Portuguese citizen by birth and in her speech to the convention demonstrated her fluency in four European languages.

We will have a first family in the White House that will be as at home in Paris or Berlin as they are in London. I have no doubts that John Kerry will want to establish correct relations with any British Prime Minister but he will neither need nor want the intense personal conspiracy into which George Bush drew Tony Blair.

Maybe both countries will be the healthier for it. Outside the cavernous convention hall commentators pontificated on whether Kerry has the personality to win in November. This speculation seemed grossly unfair to a candidate who has led a much more interesting life than most politicians.

Delegates going through the circulation area passed under a photo of Kerry beside John Lennon demonstrating against the Vietnam War. How many British politicians could present a photo of themselves with John Lennon? How many of them would have taken it down from the wall now that Tony Blair has explained that the Sixties led to today's binge drinking? The platform was plainly perplexed whether it was more proud of John Kelly, the war hero or John Kerry, the anti-war protester. It therefore resolved to be proud of both.

Outside the convention hall, the walls were festooned with memorabilia of his protest days, including his challenge to a Senate hearing, "How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?" That has an uncanny resonance today in Iraq.

The most impressive aspect of John Kerry's war service is that he went at all, given the ease with which the rest of his patrician class found ways to dodge the draft.

But it is disturbing that the Democratic Party feels obliged to market its candidate on his military credentials. The previous night, nine retired generals and admirals were paraded across the platform in a massed display of shock and awe. The delegates rose to the patriotic fervour, chanting: "U-S-A ... U-S-A".

There is a narrow psephological calculation to his pitch, as one in eight US voters are now military veterans. But it also reveals a deeper truth about modern America. Gary Hart mused thoughtfully that no country could undertake abroad the role of empire without it having an impact on its domestic character. In America, the consequence is that its intense patriotism now finds fulfilment in sustaining awesome military might.

The sharp divisions of this election do not disturb the consensus that America must retain the capability of a hyperpower. One of John Kerry's few specific pledges is that he will double the number of special forces.

So, will John Kerry deliver defeat of George Bush? The polls show that 80 per cent of the electorate say they have made up their mind how to vote and will not change before polling day. They split exactly half and half, leaving a balance of uncommitted voters.

The Kerry strategy is to say nothing to frighten off these swing voters and to do everything to ensure that voting Democrat does not demand that they endorse too challenging a position.

His party members fully understand what he is up to; I did not hear any delegates repeating the complaint of commentators that John Kerry is not stacking out a distinctive radical platform.

Last December, I asked one of the key pollsters for the Democratic Party what was its percentage chance of success. He replied: "Zero." This week even he put the probability of victory at 60 per cent.

For nine months, George Bush has been steadily sinking in the polls and is now at an approval rating that has led to defeat for previous incumbents.

It is hard to see what is going to change in Iraq or anywhere else in the next three months to save him. The message from Boston is that the Democrats are determined no mistake by them is going to rescue the most right-wing administration they can remember from the defeat they believe it deserves.